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How Do You Explain Software Development To 2nd Graders? 430

First time accepted submitter zimania writes "At the start of every school year, my kids' teachers invariably ask if any parents have any special skills they can present to the students. As a software engineer, I'd like to give a presentation to the classes about developing software. The tricky part is making a presentation fun, inspirational, and easy enough for 2nd and 4th graders to grasp. Has anybody been brave enough to attempted such a thing? Are there kid-tested prepackaged presentations freely available? Would it be best to present the development of a simple game? Web page? Any advice is welcome."
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How Do You Explain Software Development To 2nd Graders?

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  • Easy! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheCouchPotatoFamine ( 628797 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:24AM (#37282672)
    Have them stand together and execute a "program" as if each of them are "utilities". Something like getting an apple onto the teachers table, but each person does one thing and one thing alone. Then let them have fun seeing what they can figure out to do - so long as they still only do that one thing. This isn't about "code" it's about a way of thinking!
    • OK, that's actually a pretty cool idea. I regret my initial hasty reply of "maybe nothing". You also reminded me of the first program I ever encountered (and I suspect we all encountered it by 2nd grade). It worked like this:

      For a picture of a naked lady, turn to page 45.

      45: The teacher is ugly. Naked ladies are on page 89.

      And so on, and so forth.

      It was a simple language, but not well structured. Mostly statements and gotos; but it did have conditionals, perhaps even before Lisp: If you want to see a

    • Introduce them to Scratch. [] It's an easy programming environment where they can actually create something. You can demo programs other kids have written and depending on the time you have, they could actually create programs themselves.
      • That's a great idea. I'd add to that, not to treat them like idiots - it's amazing at what a second grader can understand. I know I was amazed with the stuff my nephew came out with.

    • If this is your first time presenting to this class, keep it super simple. For instance, put up the picture of a dinosaur and make it growl/shake. And just use the time to make a connection with the kids. If you want to teach them something useful, talk to the teacher about a follow up session, and take a look at the following materials for inspiration: [].

    • Re:Easy! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by sconeu ( 64226 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @03:49AM (#37283548) Homepage Journal

      I did this with my daughter's 3rd grade class, only I showed them how a computer counts to 5.

      Someone was the CPU, someone was the display, someone was memory, etc...

  • Back in primary school (15-20 years ago) i was introduced to programming using the Logo language (drawing the path of a turtle on the screen).

    Syntax was something similar to:

    FORWARD 100
    LEFT 90
    FORWARD 100
    LEFT 90
    FORWARD 100
    LEFT 90
    FORWARD 100
    LEFT 90


    REPEAT 4 [FD 100 LEFT 90]

    • That's what I first thought of. My school was too cheap/broke to actually have the turtle, but the draw-on-screen Logo software out there was a great thing to learn with. It would be interesting to see someone take the idea of Logo, an instant-feedback system, and create a new language with just enough functionality for educational use. You could make it really simple, maybe even an embedded sort of thing on a ROM chip. Just something really basic and low level that you can put on a little box designed to

    • Logowriter FTW. And that turtle was so cute. Penup, pen down!

    • by Macgrrl ( 762836 )

      Check out the game RoboRally []. Each player has a set of simple commands to execute in the form of cards. One instruction per card. The game board also contains instructions which are played out whenever you land on them. It also demonstrates what happens when you combine instructions and the importance of selecting the right order of instructions.

      If you are really enthusiactic you can build a live action RoboRally board (a bit like live action chess), we used to have someone run live action RoboRally at gami

    • by Belial6 ( 794905 )
      This could be done more effectively with a Bigtrak. Remember those programmable tanks from the early 80s? You can get a mini version from Think Geek. []

      Yeah, it is $25, but that is cheaper than a lot of the other suggestions here. If money isn't a huge issue, get 4 of them and let the kids play with them. Programming them is basically the same as Logo Basic, but instead of putting lines on the screen, the tank actually moves around the room. Great fun,
    • by deek ( 22697 )

      My first try at programming was in high school, on an Apple II, using BASIC. As I remember, this was how it went:

      10 PRINT "John Baxter SUX !!"
      20 GOTO 10

      I recommend a similar approach with the 2nd grade kids. Giving them the power to insult their fellow classmates is always appreciated, and remembered.

      • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

        Giving them the power to insult their fellow classmates is always appreciated, and remembered.

        Especially by John Baxter.

    • Yes! There was even a robot Turtle. A very simple language, Logo [] and LogoWriter.

      Perfect for 2nd graders.

    • Jesus, I forgot about this! Yes, this one was one of my earlier programming experiences too, or something very similar to it. Though my first actual experience was using Sinclair Basic to make the Spectrum screen flash in sickening colours that made me begin to worry if I were epileptic. (I wasn't, but I didn't often do that again.)

      10 RANDOMIZE
      20 A=7*RND
      30 B=7*RND
      40 BORDER A
      50 PAPER B
      60 CLS
      70 GOTO 20

      I've probably got that totally wrong because I've forgotten Sinclair Basic completely but you get the point.

  • It's probably easier than trying to explain it to my dev team! Oh! No I didn't!

    Heh heh heh.

    The intro-to-CS exercise they used back in my day was for the instructor or another student to pretend to be a robot that would follow instructions literally, and other students would have to devise instructions to a simple task. It gives you a good grasp of what talking to a computer is like, without having to go into technical details that second graders probably wouldn't understand or talk about binary math whi

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Plus, for second graders, it adds much hilarity like walking in place with nose against the wall because nobody said stop.

  • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:31AM (#37282722) Homepage Journal

    Use abstract language and flow charts to explain, for instance here is pseudocode for a function called doSoftwareEngineering:

    function softwareEngineering outputs betterBonusForBoss and meagerSalary

    do until tooOldToEmploy
          change jobs
          do until bossFiresYouForBonus
                do TPSRepeatsReportsUntilYouWantToCry

    gosub without return

    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      basic for kids.
      find a book from '80s, adapt from that.
      it's important that they'll "get" that the computer just follows pre-made instructions, it's just a machine that goes to next step depending on what the state is.
      dos and .bat files were easy to learn as a kid and then going forward from that.

      the kids have probably seen computers and played computer games already.. fun way to spoil some of the fun of them is to have them play a simple text adventure made in basic, and then show them that.

      then have them wr

    • by syousef ( 465911 )

      do TPSRepeatsReportsUntilYouWantToCry

      Wouldn't it be quicker and easier to just pinch the child hard until he or she is sobbing and tell them that feeling is what coding is like?

  • It's hopefully pretty straightforward to assume that no 2nd grader will really be interested in the process of software development.

    My suggestion is to start off trying to relate it to something they know and use. There has been educational software for as long as there's been the hardware to run it. OG Oregon trail (spacebar for hunting) to Newschool oregon trail (mouseclick for hunting), to that time traveling mathdog game that I always forget the name of. Try to find out if they play any educational c

  • by dacut ( 243842 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:32AM (#37282738)

    One of the most engaging presentations I've seen on this was the making of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich where the students write out the instructions and you execute them -- very literally, as a computer would do -- illustrating the attention to detail and error checking required for programming.

    I recall seeing the knife go through the lids for the peanut butter and jelly jars, the jars being placed directly on slices of bread, peanut butter being spread on the bread wrapper, etc.

    This would be something to incorporate into a larger talk, probably at the end (to keep their attention going).

    • These exercises are really only fair if the permitted operations are defined as the first step.
      (1) Definitions (2) Axioms/Hardware (3) Theorems/Programs

      • These exercises are really only fair if the permitted operations are defined as the first step.
        (1) Definitions (2) Axioms/Hardware (3) Theorems/Programs

        1-3) None of those 3 steps are things a 2nd grader can understand, so we MUST be "unfair" to those principles to be "fair" to the audience. We don't even learn a natural language that way; many noun translations and sentences are lightly explored first. Much later, the grammar rule disection begins. It's the same with absolute beginner and advanced Computer language learners.

        Programming like GP suggests is a common teaching aid. It's self-explanatory AND fun once those uninitiated start experiencing how sil

    • Love this. The "giving of instructions to the kids to execute" by another poster is also lovely, but this would be what I'd do if I'd preferred the kids to remain seated!

      A programmer can only make the computer do what the computer can already do. But then, how do you make it do something it has never done before, but just for you?

      Maybe start with a premise that you wash dishes. But provide commands that would let them piece together a program that would "scrub" jelly onto a "plate" of bread... Then at the e

    • Lovely. I will remember this one, may be useful.

      What you should to add, as mentioned in other comments too: reduce the commands the students can give to a set of very basic and unambiguous commands that you have written on cards. Like "move forward", "move hand up", "stop moving". Because that's what a programming language does too. They can of course use the same command over and over again, but nothing else than that.

      After all programming is of course first and foremost a way of thinking, the actual pro

    • I did a presentation with a slightly older group where the task was to replace a flat tyre.

      Same kind of thing. It was hilarious. I actually had to intervene to stop their 'program' from dropping the car on my foot - which triggered off a whole new stream of conversation that I had not been anticipating.
  • I started getting my kids into programming at young ages... not 2nd grade, but close: my son was in 3rd grade, my daughter 4th. I tried a couple different approaches... gave him an old Commodore 64 (yes, a real one!) and the original BASIC manual that came with it and let him try to figure it out himself (he's been way beyond his age reading-wise for years now so it really wasn't as bad as it sounded). That didn't work. I tried coding a simple Pong game in JavaScript with him following along... that kind

  • Take a very simple application that keeps a list of what money you get, and what you spend it on. A simple display screen of Amount Reason Then explain you need to add two buttons - add money and spend money. Each button opens up a screen where you enter the information, explain how you need fields to enter the data, and buttons to go OK. Then you can go, what if you hit the button by mistake? You need a cancel button. Around this time you need to talk about how dumb computers are, and how you have to
  • Scratch? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Max Romantschuk ( 132276 ) <> on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:37AM (#37282766) Homepage

    A projector, and Scratch? []

    Mindstorms could also make sense?

    To explain a programming I would demostrate how changes to a simple piece of code changes something that you can see, like an animation (scratch) or a robot's behavior (mindstorms).

  • More details, please.
    This "present special skills to students" is a vague goal.
    Is this like parents coming in for 10 minutes and explaining "I am Timmy's dad. I'm a carpenter. I build houses." That would be pretty easy: show them what software does (xbox, ipad, cell phone, internet(club penguin), a tickle-me-elmo or some other toy with software. Tell them you build software, and that software makes these things "smart". What *doesn't* use software in 2011? They're like what, 8 years old? Don't overs
    • by sconeu ( 64226 )

      I like this. When I did career day and my kids were in elementary school, I did a couple of things.

      At the time, I did embedded systems, so first , I asked them how many computers they thought were in their Mom's car. And then I used that as a jumping off point to explain (at a very high level) embedded systems.

      Then I talked a little about how I write software. I asked them, if they were building a house, would they just start hammering, would would they make a plan. Pointed out the same thing for softwa

  • Get them involved! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by matt-fu ( 96262 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:42AM (#37282792)
    Whatever you do, print out some copies of "Snake Wrangling for Kids" to hand out while you're there. It was written for kids who are eight years or older, but chances are there are at least a couple of kids in there who would get it if they looked it over. I gave a copy to my daughter when she was seven and she thought it was pretty fun. Even if nobody has access to some kind of Python install, it may plant seeds for later. []

  • You might tell them you are going to pretend to be a robot, and tell them to give you instructions to pick up an object (let's say an apple), carry it across the room, and set it down. Write out instruction cards they have to use, cards that say things like "lower hand", "close hand", "raise hand", "walk forward", etc.

    The fun will be when they realize that robots don't have common sense, and if they tell you to walk you just walk until you hit something. Or maybe they didn't tell you to line up the hand w

  • If you have any lego mindstorms build a shooter bot (one that can move and shoot balls) and then show them how you put a simple program together to control it and get them to help design a program to make the robot hit a target (like the teacher's foot if they don't mind!). The lego system uses graphical programming which is not great but nice and visual and is so simple that even my son - who just entered second grade today - has been able to write simple programs with it.

    If nothing else it might encour
  • 2nd grade might be too young to teach anything other than a vague concept of what it means.

    I think a simple game would be the best bet - but I suspect the only thing you could convey to them is some demonstration of "i type this code, turn it into something the computer can understand, and when you run it, it looks like this".

    I taught myself programming at ~10 years old by borrowing books from the library where you could type in the 10-50 line BASIC programs and run them. I learnt to tweak them to do other

  • Introduce them to Logo. 2nd graders can grasp the concept of a turtle that leaves a line as it walks. I say this from absolute experience: my father was a 2nd grade teacher for over 20 years and he introduced them all to Logo. It was always a HUGE hit, and the kids picked it up amazingly well. Remember, 2nd graders are only around 8 years old. They don't care about for loops and binary systems and memory and stacks. Logo is such a wonderful thing to introduce young children to "making computers do things."

  • I do workshops for 15 year olds +, so this may be useful to you: There are many great stories of disasers that have been caused by software. This lets me explain how my job is to create software that does not make those mistakes. :-)
  • by The Dancing Panda ( 1321121 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:54AM (#37282864)
    I'd say tell them the truth. It's a job that sucks the life out of you.
    Most of your days will be spent:
    a) in "requirements" meetings: Where people who have no idea what they want hope for some reason that you do.
    b) in "testing" meetings: where those same people get pissed that you didn't do what they didn't say.
    c) in "bug report" meetings: where people can't fathom that in a hundred thousand lines of hastily written code (because we had a due date, and had too many testing meetings to actually test anything), there could be a mistake somewhere.
    d) "developing": where you write some shitty business software that most people are forced to use during jobs that they also hate. Meaning no one will ever be happy with the work you're doing.
    e) looking for a new job: And not being able to find something interesting because your experience is in fucking business software, because it was the only decent paying job available when you were first out of college and didn't know any better. And everyone that's going to pay you decently wants experience in whatever they hell their doing, not business software. Even though you have a god damn master's degree in CS, not "business software".
    f) Oh god please make the hurting stop.
    g) Drinking, and trying to avoid people who want to talk about work.

    Feel free to pass this out as a pamphlet to the kids.
    • by dudpixel ( 1429789 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @03:26AM (#37283474)

      This might be true if your first introduction to code was your first day at uni.

      Many software engineers started out as kids coding their own games and learning stuff on their own.
      The software development doesn't stop with your job.

      I always have several projects on the go at home. These days they're mostly geared towards earning a second income, and some have been successful.
      But to see my life as a software engineer as purely what I do for my employment - that would make me cry.

      My job just pays the bills - yes I write code for a living and I do enjoy my job (as much as that is even possible), but none of it compares to the stuff I tinker with in my own time. Software engineering is a way of life, not just something you do for a job.

  • by HockeyPuck ( 141947 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:56AM (#37282878)

    Be glad you aren't like me and support mainframes...

    "Hello class, I work on this really big black computer the size of a refrigerator and the weight of an elephant...No, it doesn't play Angry Birds.... but it's older than both of your parents"

    I'm still trying to figure out how to explain what I do to Adults...

  • by Dahamma ( 304068 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @12:59AM (#37282898)

    10 PRINT "YOU SUCK!"
    20 GOTO 10

    Pretty much every Apple II in my elementary school ran that program almost continuously... what more do you need?

    [Bonus - it was a gateway program to writing Eamon expansions by Jr High. Double bonus if anyone actually knows what the hell I am talking about...]

  • Really. You don't explain to 2nd graders what it's like to be a farmer, a preacher, an engineer, a politician, an author, a doctor, an ecologist, a chemist, a clerk, a physicist, a professor, a teacher, a police officer, a cabinet maker, a candlestick maker, a fireman, an astronaut, a pilot, a nurse, a proofreader, an electrician, a builder, a seamstress, an artist, a race driver, a GIS specialist, a mountain climber, a kebab maker, a bearucrat, a paramedic, a storekeeper, a herdsman, a psychologist, a film

    • Adding to my above comment, do you think they (the kids) would be excited if a baker came into the class and taught them how to bake a basic loaf of bread? Whack some flour in here, add a bit of yeast, a pinch of salt, pound it, turn it, let it rise, pound it, let it rise, bake (sorry if that's not the correct procedure, I am not a baker). Their eyes would glaze over until they ate the finished product. Even then they wouldn't have learned anything (well, the majority would not have). Except that fresh brea

      • What are you talking about? My 4-year old and his friends go apeshit over baking. Every preschool in America has baking/cooking in the curriculum, because the kids love it and then everyone gets a snack. It frames planning -> effort -> reward in a way a toddler can immediately get it.

  • Just think back to when you were a kid. What got YOU interested?

    For my cousin and I, it was this badboy. []

    Man, the fun we had with that thing. The absolute top was getting the thing to fire a spring-action Crossman BB pistol (taped to the top of the unit) by using the dump function of the optional dump-trailer and a piece of string to pull the trigger when programmed.

    If that doesn't get kids excited about programming, I don't know what will.

    Or you can just fall back on the

  • Could you come by and explain it to some software engineers? I think quite a few of them could do with learning about it too.
  • Why don't you just let kids be kids?

    A big part of the reason why America is falling behind other parts of the world is because they have not learned the concept of "work smarter not harder". You can only get a certain amount of productivity out of a worker where keeping them chained to their desk for more than 7.5 hours a day for 5 days a week.

    The same problem exists with schools in America, children are forced to go to school far too early when they would rather be learning social skills and playing with t

  • by Sun ( 104778 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @01:22AM (#37282988) Homepage

    Caveat - I have never actually tried it, and I developed it for adults. I still think it might work with 2nd graders (probablu too coplex)

    Ask for a volunteer. Write a bunch of numbers on the board, and tell the volunteer to sort them.

    Explain that this is not programming.

    Now, cover the volunteer's eyes, write some more numbers on the board, and tell him to tell you to sort them. Allow asking "what is the first number" and such.

    Explain that this is, also, not programming.

    Now, tell the volunteer to tell you how to sort the numbers before they are written on the board. Explain that once the numbers are written on the board, you will not hear any comment from him. Write the instructions down on the board. When they are done, write down numbers and carry the instructions out. Try to pick numbers that won't work with their instructions. Allow the class to fix the instructions, but any time they do, restart the whole thing.

    This is programming.


  • Edit game config files, to begin with.

    Then find something that requires a loop, if they still have the interest in fiddling around.

  • You go up to the front of the class and say, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter this profession". If they want you to expound on it a bit, you add "Are you fucking crazy? Go play some foot ball, score with some cheer leaders, drink booze, smoke pot, do anything BUT become a software developer. Your peers are almost universally morons, and those are the ones in THIS country. It's entirely likely that by the time you graduate, you'll have to move to India or China to find work. Oh, and your managers will con

  • Last week I felt like writing a little code with a simple game framework. The tutorial they had was a basic jet flying to the right shooting at and avoiding oncoming items. All the graphics and sounds were in the tutorial with copy and paste code so it was quick to throw together. My kids ages 3 and 6 were hanging out with me watching it come to life. I let them move the jet around when all I had was a moving jet. They saw it as we added targets, then bullets, then explosions, then sound.

    What they real

  • Say, "Computers are like dumb robots that need very exact and details instructions to do a task. They don't have common sense to figure things out on their own. They are kind of like young toddlers in that they don't know how to do very many things on their own. However, unlike toddlers they do listen if you talk to them just right."

    "You have to give them very careful instructions to tell them exactly how to do things and not skip any steps. Each step is split up into finer and finer steps until it's simple

  • Software engineer is a quite abstract job to describe, as opposed to programmer.

    My best bet would be - depending on the time you have to spend and how far you want to get them involved: If you have a LEGO mindstorm or something, build a small car out of it and ask them to describe when it should stop, turn etc. to drive a given course and implement it.

  • The first phrase of the course should be this:

    "Dear class,

    All the code that you write in the next 15 years will be shit."

    That, bizarrely, should motivate some to become programmers. It'll also help others choose different paths more quickly.

    And they will love you for being the teacher that said "shit".

  • by ( 245670 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @04:08AM (#37283618)

    Just use whatever presentation would be appropriate for your board of directors. Maybe bump it up a notch or two so the kids don't feel insulted.

    I keed! I keed! I know a lowly programmer would never be permitted to speak to board members.

  • Just tell them it's magic, and show a video of Hugh Jackman creating a virus while sipping wine.
  • Write a simple BASIC program that does something fun in 10 lines. Start with


    and keep changing / adding to the listing until it's about 10 lines long and your presentation time is up. You can illustrate the full SDLC this way. I'd make sure to use GW-BASIC in fullscreen mode, and finish the presentation by running a PACMAN clone (*) that the kids can play with.

    (*) written in BASIC in case the kids want to see the code.

    It's a 3d world, which is programmed using visual programming language. For kids.
    A free one, also have source code.
    License is apache 1.0

  • I know the web site says "12+", but it IS easy enough for any third grader smarter than a house plant.

    If you scrap the timer and let them "pair program", if necessary, they'll get it.

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Friday September 02, 2011 @11:12AM (#37286798)

    ... to corporate management. But we can use bigger words.

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel